Date Climbed: February 19-20, 2016
Partners: Matthew, Anthony, and Gabriele
After a lot of preparation and some failed attempts on other peaks, I was ready for another shot at Humboldt. I had previously visited the peak last winter and turned around due to avalanche conditions. This time I had planned to avoid the avalanche terrain and take the East Ridge route, the most common route up Humboldt in winter. But I needed some help. A good friend of mine, Matthew, and I met at a coffee shop to discuss details on a February attempt. We soon had a plan and a team. We would meet February 19 at 4 AM and carpool to Humboldt, where we would then set up a high camp at timberline and summit the next day.
There were two reasons for this: first, I knew it would be a long route, especially since we had no idea how well our team would work together. Second, The winds were predicted to be 70+ on the 19th. with an exposed ridge climb for an extended period of time on one of Colorado's windiest 14ers, our margin of error would be too small. So I believed our greatest chance of success was to wait out the storm and make summit day as easy as possible. Plus, I just love winter camping.
With this in mind the 19th quickly came and our team of four met in the parking lot at the church I work at in downtown Denver. It was Matthew and I, Anthony (a friend of Matthew's), and Gabriele (a CCU student I invited to join). Our ragtag bunch threw our backpacks into the back of my truck and drove off into the darkness. By 7 AM, we were at the lower trailhead of Humboldt and the winds were horrific. Just opening the door of the truck was a feat in itself! Nonetheless, we were in high spirits with the warm temperatures and an adventure ahead of us. It took us about half an hour to get all of our gear together, and off we went down the road. Our pace was extremely slow with the wind in our faces, but we eventually made it to the shelter of the trees and donned our snowshoes.
Up we went, and quickly made it to the Rainbow Trailhead, where our route would take us off the road and onto the East ridge. Even in the trees, the winds were uncomfortable and very loud. When we were just feet from each other, we had to shout to make our voices heard. Slowly, the miles ticked by and we made progress up the ridge, occasionally getting glimpses of the lower east ridge above timberline. Plumes of snow could be seen on the mountain tops, indicating high winds to blow such rock hard snow. As we progressed, the slope angle became steeper and steeper, and soon we were stumbling through the now slushy snow up a very steep slope. Thankfully the avalanche danger was mitigated by the trees, and we safely passed our only worrying slope for the trip. Shortly after our steep slog, the trees began to thin and the wind became stronger and louder. Timberline was near, and soon we could see our ridge.
Our team was exhausted, and camp sounded like a welcome idea, even though it was not quite noon. But since our team had not done many winter camping trips, I knew we would be slower in setting up camp, and so we got to work. After digging out a very large, three foot deep shelter, we set to work on the tents. Since no one else had a four season tent, I volunteered my three season tent as tribute for the other half of our party. Out came the tent, and immediately the wind attempted to take it. Thankfully, our shelter somewhat protected our tent from the wind, and after a bit of work the tent was up and anchored in (as best as we could with the slushy snow). The second tent, my four season one, went much faster and it was securely anchored to the snow in no time. After fiddling with some of the anchors to make sure the tents would not be blown away we all dived into our respective tents and began to unpack.
Off went the boots, then came the sleeping pad, the sleeping bag, the extra layers, and the kitchen. As we hunkered down and began to melt water, the sunlight transitioned from bright yellow, to orange, as the sun began to set. I left the tent door open so the fumes would not build up in the tent and so we could enjoy the awesome views of the mountains to our east. Although the winds were still unrelenting, the tent offered a comfortable shelter. Stars began to come out as our tent made dinner. After a satisfying meal of granola and stroganoff, we went to bed.
As the night dragged on, the wind howled more ferociously than ever, and I could hear the other tent's rain cover flap louder and louder. It was as though a jet plane was right above us the whole night and I began to worry that a storm was brewing. I pulled out my phone and managed to get some service, and looked up the forecast. The winds would remain constant until noon the next day, but I read some news that 148 mph gusts had been recorded not too far from where we were. If that reached us, it would be fatal, even with warmer temperatures. I sent up a silent prayer and went back to sleep.
Early the next morning, we began to melt snow for our water and started discussing our plan. The winds had not gone away, but they were a little better than the day before. I just had to hope that the forecast would hold so that we could make it past the final ridge. Soon we had left camp and were moving at a quick pace. As soon as we exited the trees, the wind tore at us. It seemed as though the mountain itself wanted to keep us away from the summit, pushing us back with all its might. We dropped the snowshoes and began our long walk along the wind blown rocks leading to the summit. The first major obstacle was a huge 1000 foot slope from where we would finally see the summit of Humboldt.
Every step was an effort, and even with the sun and high temperatures (relatively speaking), the wind was bitter and icy. We eventually had to pull out heavier layers, and I even had to put on my heavy weight gloves. After an hour of hard work, our progress still seemed minuscule, and the wind would not relent. Thankfully, I could just see the summit around the corner of the slope. The last bit would be more technical than before, and if the winds did not let up soon, we would not be able to make it. As the summit inched closer and closer, I felt stronger and soon even the wind began to die down.
Progress across the flat part of the ridge went quickly, and we only had about 500 feet of scrambling above us. Up we went, climbing over rocks and around boulders, avoiding the huge drop off to our right. The others made it a minute before I did, but soon, there was nothing but blue sky above me and I knew I was almost there. As I climbed over the last step, the others came into view, all smiles. We had made it! The dramatic view of the Crestones alone was worth the trip. Off to our right was Kit Carson and Challenger, and to the left we could just make out the infamous Little Bear Peak.
After taking plenty of pictures and congratulating each other, we descended the ridge, going as fast as our tired legs would go. On the way down, we lost track of our snowshoes and had to traverse under a few worrying slopes until we finally reached them. We put them on and descended to our high camp. As soon as we were at our tents, Anthony flopped down on the snow next to his tent and I dove into mine, looking forward to a good lunch and some water. We took a quick rest and packed up our gear.
It was early afternoon by now, and we still had several miles to cover. Down we went through the now soft snow, slipping and sliding all the way. At last we reached the trail junction with the road and my knees finally had a break from the persistent pounding of each step. The road went by quickly and as we left the trees, into view came one of the most beautiful sites (my eyes) have ever seen: my truck! A seat, some food and an easy drive home awaited us. As soon as we got there, we unloaded our heavy packs, hopped in the truck, and drove to Pueblo to find some food and unwind. By the time we reached Pueblo, darkness had fallen. We had some burgers, drove home, and said our goodbyes. Our mission was a success, and a winter calendar ascent had been won! On to the next one! And in two years, the highest summit in South America; Aconcagua.